-from The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra
When the Eastern mystics tell us that they experience all things and events as manifestations of a basic oneness, this does not mean that they pronounce all things to be equal. They recognize the individuality of all things, but at the same time they are aware that all differences and contrasts are relative within an all-embracing unity.
Since in our normal state of consciousness, this unity of all contrasts – and especially the unity of opposites – is extremely hard to accept, it constitutes one of the most puzzling features of Eastern philosophy. It is, however, an insight which lies at the very root of the Eastern world view.
Opposites are abstract concepts belonging to the realm of thought, and as such they are relative. By the very act of focusing our attention on any one concept we create its opposite. As Lao Tzu says, “When all in the world understand beauty to be beautiful, then ugliness exists; when all understand goodness to be good, then evil exists.”
Mystics transcend this realm of intellectual concepts, and in transcending it become aware of the relativity and polar relationship of all opposites. They realize that good and bad, pleasure and pain, life and death, are not absolute experiences belonging to different categories, but are merely two sides of the same reality; extreme parts of a single whole.
The awareness that all opposites are polar, and thus a unity, is seen as one of the highest aims of man in the spiritual traditions of the East. The whole of Buddhist teaching – and in fact the whole of Eastern mysticism – revolves about this absolute point of view which is reached in the world of acintya, or ‘no-thought’, where the unity of all opposites becomes a vivid experience. In the words of the Zen poem,
‘At dusk the cock announces dawn;
At midnight, the bright sun.’
In the East, a virtuous person is therefore not one who undertakes the impossible task of striving for the good and eliminating the bad, but rather one who is able to maintain a dynamic balance between good and bad. This notion of dynamic balance is essential to the way in which the unity of opposites is experienced in Eastern mysticism. It is never a static identity, but always a dynamic interplay between two extremes. This point has been emphasized most extensively by Chinese sages in their symbolism of the archetypal poles of yin and yang. They called the unity lying behind yin and yang the Tao and saw it as a process which brings about their interplay: ‘That which lets now the dark, now the light appear is Tao.’
I have already asserted that a similar plane has been reached in modern physics. The exploration of the subatomic world has revealed a reality which repeatedly transcends language and reasoning, and the unification of concepts which had hitherto seemed opposite and irreconcilable turns out to be one of the most startling features of this new reality. Modern physicists should therefore be able to gain insights into some of the central teachings of the Far East by relating them to experiences in their own field.
Examples of the unification of opposite concepts in modern physics can be found at the subatomic level, where particles are both destructible and indestructible; where matter is both continuous and discontinuous, and force and matter are but different aspects of the same phenomenon. In all these examples, it turns out that the framework of opposite concepts, derived from our everyday experience, is too narrow for the world of subatomic particles.
Eastern mystics, on the other hand, seem to be able to experience a higher-dimensional reality directly and concretely. In the state of deep meditation, they can transcend the three-dimensional world of everyday life, and experience a totally different reality where all opposites are unified into an organic whole. When the mystics try to express this experience in words, they are faced with the same problems as the physicists trying to interpret the multidimensional reality of relativistic physics.
For a better understanding of this relation between pairs of classical concepts, Niels Bohr has introduced the notion of complementarity. He considered the particle picture and the wave picture as two complementary descriptions of the same reality, each of them being only partly correct and having a limited range of application. Each picture is needed to give a full description of the atomic reality, and both are able to be applied within the limitations given by the uncertainty principle.
Niels Bohr was well aware of the parallel between his concept of complementarity and Chinese thought. When he visited China in 1937, at a time when his interpretation of quantum theory had already been fully elaborated, he was deeply impressed by the ancient Chinese notion of polar opposites, and from that time he maintained an interest in Eastern culture.
Ten years later, Bohr was knighted as an acknowledgment of his outstanding achievements in science and important contributions to Danish cultural life; and when he had to choose a suitable motif for his coat-of-arms his choice fell on the Chinese symbol of tai qi, representing the complementary relationship of the archetypal opposites yin and yang. In choosing this symbol for his coat-of-arms, together with the inscription Contraria sunt complementa (Opposites are complementary), Niels Bohr acknowledged the profound harmony between ancient Chinese wisdom and modern Western science.